Creed of George Seton, 7th Lord Seton

The Official History of the Seton Family

Seton, Seeton, Seytoun, or Seaton: a topographical name; meaning "sea town", which came to be attached to the shipping magnates who mastered the medieval North Sea.

The Seton Church, choir windows.jpgThe word has several variant spellings the last form being the oldest. It derived not from Scotland but from the north-east coast of England, notably Durham where there are five places so called: In Northumberland where there are eight, Yorkshire has two named Seatons and a third – actually the most important of them all – which has nowadays lost that designation. The small harbour village of Staithes, nine miles north of Whitby, was in the 11th century called Seaton Staithes. It was an important place, private if not secret to its users, hidden in a cleft in the cliffs and extremely difficult of access. As the old name indicates, it was a stronghold for the Seatons. Seaton Quay is at the safest point in the harbour, and Seaton Hall has stood for many centuries at the top of the cliff directly above it.

After Domesday but before the end of the 11th century the family name had been drawn inland, most portentously to Rutland, where at the new manor of Seaton the Lady Maud de Lens and her sister Alice were spending the betrothal period before their marriages. Maud’s Scottish son, Prince Henry, would pass the name to Seaton, Cumbria, where he established a cell of his abbey at Holmcultram. Earlier than either of these moves, it went to the Firth of Forth where Queen Maud’s premier Flemish relative, her uncle Seier "de Seton" built his great palace for the protection of herself and her heirs.

Like so many other pedigrees, the Norman origin offered for the Seton family is careless nonsense. The name was said to be made up from "the town of the Say". William de Say, son of the Conqueror’s companion of the same name, married a sister of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, and took the Mandeville arms of quartered gold and red. There is no possible connection with the Setons - except that William de Say was lord of Hamme, in West Flanders, probably through his Flemish wife, and his arms were in the tinctures of Boulogne.  As their own distinctive crescents show, Seier de Seton and his brother Walter sprang from a second son of the house of Boulogne. Known in their Flemish homeland as Seier and Walter de Lens, they were sons of Count Eustace’s second son, Count Lambert de Lens, whose daughter by a second marriage (to the sister of William the Conqueror) was the Countess Judith, mother of Scotland’s Queen Maud. Seier’s eldest son, Walter de Lens, or Walter the Fleming as he is described in Domesday, had his chief English home at Wahull (now called Odell) in Bedfordshire. On the Firth of Forth, as heir there of his father, Seier, he was called Dougall or "the dark stranger", a nickname which was also given to his own son Walter, and duly recorded by the family’s first official chronicler, Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington, in 1554.

Of Flemish and of Carolingian lineage, the manuscript at the British Museum from the 16th century it states that "their surnam came home with King Malcolme Camoir foorth of Ingland". Chalmers in his "Caledonia" states that the first Setons were members of a Norman (Flemish) family named "Say" (which was incorrect), and that they obtained from David I land in East Lothian which were called Sey-tun. Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington wrote a "Historie or Chronicle of the Hous and Surename of Seytoun" down to the year 1559, wrote that King Malcolm Canmore "gaif to the predecessour and forebear of my Lord Seytoun the surename of Seytoun... appearandlie be ressoun that the gentilman... possessit the landis of Seytoun for the tyme... thay landis ar callit Seytoun for ane grit caus, becaus thay ly hard upon the Sey cost and the Toun thairof is neir to the Sey."

In both Scotland and Bedfordshire, and no doubt in the lost Yorkshire home of the family, Seier de Lens (or Seier de Seton) and his descendants kept as princely an establishment as they had enjoyed in Flanders – a fact attested by a curious documentary survival. As if he had been a king, Walter de Wahull had tenants-in-chief, each with his own tenants. The terms these courtiers enjoyed on his estates at Odell are known, and although the relevant Scottish documents have not survived, it is certain that the Seton tenants on the Firth of Forth had been given similar privileges. The Victoria County History for Bedfordshire records, not without astonishment, the fairy-tale rents paid by Walter’s knightly tenants in that county as "a rose, an arrow, a handful of rushes, capons, wax, a pair of gloves …" Lesser tenants paid more; the cottager William Prikeavant provided a hooded falcon, while Walter le Sergeaunt, keeper of the park at Odell Castle, held his cottage by the service of twelve arrows. At the neighbouring Little Odell Manor, whose Domesday tenant-in-chief was Walter’s great-uncle, Count Eustace II of Boulogne, the tenancies granted to Eustace’s own attendant knights were similar, "a garland of roses, a bundle of rushes, a cake of wax …"

One Scottish tenancy tradition which has survived concerns the Tower at Tranent, which was held of the crown first by de Quincy and then by Seton; it had for payment that most magical of rentals, a rose in midwinter, a snowball in midsummer. The trust implicit in these terms of tenancy was of the same kind as that loyalty which would bind Seton to Scotland, to their cousin Maud and her descendants so long as they sat on the Scottish throne. It was a loyalty which would last unbroken to the disasters of the Fifteen and the Forty-five.  Beryl Platts ("Scottish Hazard" vol 1, The Procter Press, 1985)

Of the Seton family The Great Historic Families Of Scotland says:

‘The Setons are among the most illustrious of the great houses of Scotland, conspicuous throughout their whole history for their loyalty and firm attachment to the Stewart dynasty, in whose cause they perilled and lost their titles and extensive estates.’ The family’s founder, Seier de Seton (or de Lens), had been granted lands in East Lothian to which he gave his own name. His son, Walter de Seton (also called Dougall), married Janet de Quincy, hieress of that once powerful family, and gained the lands of Tranent bordering his own. He also acquired the lands of Wynchburgh, West Lothian. The family continued to marry into powerful alliances and later Sir Christopher Seton (Sir Chrystell) married Christian Bruce, sister of Robert I (the Bruce). After his legendary support of his brother-in-law he was captured by the English, taken to London, then executed at Dumfries. One of his brothers, Sir John Seton, shared the same fate. Alexander Seton, Sir Christopher's son, survived the wars of independence to be a signatory of the Arbroath Declaration. He also was a recipient of King Robert’s gratitude towards the family: the existing Seton lands were enlarged by means of adding those confiscated from anglo-supporters, and a large stretch of East Lothian coastline became Seton territory.

The family continued to play a distinguished and colourful part in the developing history of Scotland, marrying into other noble Scots-Flemish families and from time to time into the fringes of royalty. One interesting member of the main line was the fourth Lord Seton, who was one of James IV’s Renaissance men par excellence. Towards the end of the fifteenth century he endowed a collegiate church in the small town that bears his name with support for a provost, six prebendaries, two choir boys and a clerk. He was an early scientist and is described as ‘meikle given to leichery [medicine, not lustfulness], and as cunning in divers science as in music, theology, and astronomy’. In addition to his talent for learning he had a tremendous taste for extravagance, building houses as well as his church. As well, he spent vast sums of money on buying a great ship called the Eagle, for the sole purpose of conducting a personal vendetta against some Danish privateers who had plundered him on one of his many visits to France.

George, sixth Lord Seton, was twice married. His second wife, Marie Pyeris (pronounced Pee-yair-ee), was one of the ladies-in-waiting who had accompanied Marie de Guise from France on her marriage to King James V. The family of Guise, influential in France, was also a descendant of those once prominent Flemish-Boulognaise. His daughter by this second marriage was the famed Mary Seton, one of the four Mary’s of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. He was succeeded by his son, George, who was to play a distinguished part in the Queen’s affairs.

George, seventh Lord Seton, was one of the commisioners appointed to attend the young Mary Stuart’s marriage to the Dauphin of France in 1557. He remained faithful to the old Catholic religion, but not without interest in the reformation; as a young man he had been following the progress of the new religion and even attended a sermon by John Willock, from the preachers deathbed. However his remaining within the Church of Rome kept him inside the close party of the Queen. In 1559 he held the office of Provost of Edinburgh, and after the Queen’s return from France, he was appointed Grand Master of the Royal Household. It was at the home of the Seton family that Queen Mary spent some of the crucial moments of her short and troubled reign.

The seventh Lord was to the fore in most of the events during Mary Stuart’s reign: in March 1566 she rode to Seton after the murder of her Italian secretary, David Riccio (Rizzio); the following year again she was at Seton after the murder of her 2nd husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (they having spent their honeymoon at Seton); and he was instrumental in arranging her escape from captivity at Lochleven Castle in 1568, where he waited on the shore and escorted the Queen to safety at his nearby castle of Niddry with two hundred mounted lances. Following the defeat of the Queen’s forces at the battle of Langside, his titles and estates forfeit, he went into exile in Flanders. He returned sometime after her imprisonment (having come close to being imprisoned himself for trying to bring aid from Flanders) and was restored by James VI, spending the remainder of his days as ambassador to France.

The Seton family was again at the cause of the Stuarts, playing a part in the rescue of Queen Mary’s son, the then young James VI, from captivity at the hands of the Douglas family. They were also instrumental in the negotiations for James VI’s ascendency to the English throne. The Eighth Lord Seton was duly created First Earl of Winton by King James VI in 1600, and his brother Alexander rose to be Chancellor of Scotland and Earl of Dunfermline. The family also supported Kings Charles I and Charles II and James VII and II. As fervent supporters of the Stuart dynasty, it is no surprise that they took to the Jacobite causes, and were attainted and forfeit of their lands and titles. It was to this end that they climaxed their extraordinary history.

The Seton family’s chief residence was at the splendid Palace of Seton. It had stood on the lands named after the family since before the time David I. The lands of Seton took their name from the estates which were formally held in England; principally Seaton-Staithes, Yorkshire. The old Palace of Seton had endured much destruction and rebuilding over the centuries, being much destroyed because of its proximity on the main invasion route from England. It had however kept its original layout and French styling throughout its existence. The original plan was based around a triangular (actually a quadrangle) courtyard, described late in the seventeeth century as follows:

Medal struck to mark the marriage of George Seton and Isabel Hamilton‘The house consisted of two large fronts of freestone, and in the middle is a triangular court. The front to the south east hath a very noble apartment of a Hall, a Drawing Room, a handsome Parlour, Bedchamber, Dressing Room and closet. This apartment seems to have been built in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots; for on the ceiling of the Great Hall are plastered the Arms of Scotland, with the Arms of France on one hand…the front to the North seems to be a much older building than this. The apartments of the state are on the second story, and very spacious; three great rooms, at least forty feet high, which they say were finely furnished, ever since Mary Queen of Scots, on her return from France, kept her apartments there.’

The current Seton House, constructed 1790 by Alexander MacKenzie, has nothing in common with its predessesor, having not been constructed by a member of the family, nor designed by a relative. The sole remaining fragments of the Palace being only the barrel-vaulted ground floor and pieces of the foundation.

Kenneth Seton, 1993.

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    Lineal Outline

A Seton Story

     Head of the House
    Carolingian Lineage
    Seton Peerages
     The Main Line
     The Cadet Lines
     The Seton Descent
     The Early Setons
     The Early Lords
     The Lords Seton
     The Earls of Winton
     Viscount of Kingston
     The Parbroath Line
     The Meldrum Line
     The Touch Line
     The Cariston Line
     The Barnes Line
     The Garleton Line
     The Abercorn Line
     The Pitmedden Line
     The Lathrisk Line
     The Gargunnock Line
     Preston-Ekolsund Line
     The Mounie Line
     The Belches Line
    Eglinton Lineage
     The Bellingham Line
     The Seton's of Clatto